Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


The mother/sister/daughter mantra

March 22, 2013


I asked for bread, and I got a stone in the shape of a pedestal.

–Louisa May Alcott

“We are mothers, we are sisters, we are daughters. The honour of our nation lies with us.” I still remember the first time I heard (or rather, saw) this song; it was part of a live telecast on PTV and the date was Dec 2, 1988.

That was the day Pakistan became the first Muslim country to usher in a woman as prime minister and one of a mere handful of countries to boast a woman as an elected head of government. It was an immensely proud moment, both for the country and its women and PTV chose to commemorate it by eulogising mothers, sisters and daughters.

Now most people won’t see this as a problem, or even as slightly odd. After all every woman is a daughter, most are sisters and many go on to be mothers. What’s wrong with that? Exactly. It’s a statement of fact, so why are we singing about it? What are we paying tribute to here — an accident of birth? A fact of nature?

What we are doing, is defining every woman by her relationship to another person rather than as a person in her own right; and that relationship (by implication if not stated overtly) is usually with a man. The self-sacrificing mother who bravely sends her son to war; the devoted sister who pampers her brother, the obedient daughter who makes her father proud. These are images we have been bombarded with — in films, TV dramas and song videos; in textbook essays in school and stories in women’s magazines. Before we even realised it the mother/sister/daughter mantra had become the background score to our lives and we automatically took our place in the designated pigeon hole.

Don’t like a pigeon hole? Never mind, if you’re a good girl they’ll give you a halo and let you stand on a pedestal. That will keep you out of the way while they get on with the important stuff — like fighting wars and making a mess of running the country. Because as a woman you are the upholder of the honour of your men folk (remember the second line of the song quoted above?) and keeping the halo polished is your prime responsibility.

“Respect women”, we tell our sons, “for they are all someone’s mother, sister or daughter.” Ah, yes. But the childless woman; the woman whose father has died and has no brother to ‘protect her honour’ — well, she’s fair game, isn’t she? This is the kind of logic we perpetuate when we glorify a woman by her relationship rather than as a person.

And what about the women who want to be defined as people rather than as relationships? The mothers, daughters and sisters who are also doctors, lawyers and teachers; the wives, aunts and mothers-in-law who are pilots, professors, and yes, even prime ministers? Well, they can certainly be all that and more (as they have proved time and again) but in the final analysis the mother/sister/daughter card will trump everything else.

Because in our culture we learn at a young age that true validation comes only from our relationship (specifically to a man). A woman without a son, without a brother, and most importantly without a husband, is viewed at best with pity, at worst with trepidation (ask any mother who has only daughters how often she has to face the pity and sometimes scorn of the phrase, ‘beta nahin hai?’) And let’s not even get into the discrimination faced by single women — no matter how accomplished in their chosen field.

It’s been 25 years since Pakistan swore in its first and only woman prime minister and she’s long gone. But the song continues to haunt our airwaves, played with smug pride every Women’s Day. Perhaps, by the time the next woman is elected head of state we will be singing a different tune but I wouldn’t bet on it — after all, a prime minister’s office is for five years at most; a pedestal is for life.


Shagufta Naaz is a Dawn staffer



The following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.